Depending on when and where you encounter different kinds of information, you probably make certain assumptions about its intent and validity. When evaluating advice on how to take care of a pimple or sunspots, for instance, you probably trust your dermatologist’s advice more than claims made in paid advertisements for skincare products. But seeing the bias in a message or judging the quality of information isn’t always so easy.
After all, persuasive messaging is big business. And a proven tactic for engaging and influencing audiences with messaging—used with gusto by politicians, attorneys, and marketing and PR pros as well as public health advocates, educators, social psychologists and others—is known as framing. Like capturing a landscape in a photograph or painting, framing information means putting it into a context that helps audiences absorb and interpret it.
Framing works because it taps into the human brain’s way of sorting and managing information in a world of distractions. In other words, people see and interpret the world through mental filters constructed by personal beliefs, cultural influences and other aspects of an individual’s character. If you think of these filters in terms of the framework they provide a person, you can see how and why people come to different conclusions and make different choices — even when they’re exposed to the exact same data.
If you stay on the lookout for the three core elements of message framing (placement, approach and word choice), you can evaluate information more objectively to ensure you don’t get caught up in someone else’s agenda. Here’s how to spot efforts to influence your opinion:
Marketing effectiveness is typically measured by connecting with the right people at the right time and with the right message. That’s why today’s marketers are desperate to figure out how to send relevant content about their brands in a way that interests target consumers enough to get them to read and share it — or act in some other desired way.
So, consider the timing and placement of the information you’re getting, because when and where you get it often says a lot about its potential bias and purpose. In today’s digital, sharable, disposable and information-overloaded culture, being at the right place at the right time has never been more important. And Oreo nailed the placement gig with its Power Out? No Problem tweet at the 2012 Super Bowl, when the lights went out and the game stopped for 20 minutes — and 62,000 people were engaged by a tiny message about a cookie. Sweet!
In message framing theory, communicators basically use two ways of presenting information; messages are presented in terms of either the gain or loss, depending on the information provider’s bias and intention regarding impact. A classic example of how framing impacts opinion and choice is an experiment by Kahneman and Tversky (1984) that monitored patients’ decisions on whether or not to undergo a surgical procedure. The study revealed that people tend to more often agree to a surgery if risks are presented in terms of survival rates (as in, 94 percent survive this procedure) than death rates (6 out of a hundred people die from this procedure). Even if both outcomes are the same, people tend to make different choices based on how a scenario is framed.
More recently, a 2004 study conducted by Stanford University political science professors asked respondents if they support or oppose allowing an extremist group to hold a rally. When posed in terms of freedom of expression, the majority supported the group’s rights; if framed in terms of risk for violence, the majority opposed permitting the rally. Again, data shows that communicators can control public perception and decisions by strategically framing the messaging of an issue.
Lastly, pay close attention to the words people use to convey information. Word choice is packed with clues about a communicator’s viewpoint; yet even the most critical thinkers can easily overlook this detail when consuming information. Think word choice doesn’t sway your opinion or tweak your perspective? Stop and think about the incredible power of words to harm and empower and to influence and repel people throughout history. Upsetting and inspiring, right?
The point is: Words matter. Placement and approach do, too. So before you share content or construct an opinion based on someone else’s messaging, be sure to assess the frame that’s encasing the information.
Want to learn more about how to write the best content for your audiences? Check out our Enterprise Blog Optimization Guide.